COVID-19 and the Acceleration of Online Learning

Posted 25 Apr 2021, by

Jeanette Brown

Jeanette Brown has been in executive positions in a range of Education Institutes in Australia for over 20 years. Jeanette was Associate Director of Teaching and Learning and had overall responsibility for e-learning support and professional development of teachers at one of the largest TAFE Institutes in Australia during COVID-19.

The article below reflects Jeanette’s experience and insights about the acceleration of online learning in Education Institutes worldwide.

Summary of key findings:

  • All Education Sectors across the globe were severely disrupted by COVID-19 and had to quickly transition to remote and online delivery.
  • Although online learning has been expanding globally over the years, COVID-19 has definitely accelerated this mode and the numbers of students in all education sectors wanting a digital experience have increased.
  • Collaboration and outstanding teamwork to revise learning programs and help everyone transition to a new way of teaching became the norm both within institutes and across the Education sector.
  • The urgency and rapid disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic incentivised many teachers to transform their delivery and embrace the professional development offered to them to build their capability in digital learning.
  • Many students had the digital literacy skills and access to the internet skills needed, particularly in higher education, for online learning. However many disadvantaged learners did not and needed additional support both in skill development and accessing the internet to be able to continue their studies.
  • Seamless and user friendly digital learning platforms are essential in all learning but they are  tools that add value and should not be a driver of education.
  • The numbers of short, sharp training courses and online micro-credentials have increased significantly and are available to all, enabling targeted skill development in high demand, underpinning future economic recovery.
  • The increase in the hybrid model of learning which is either fully online or a combination of face-to-face and  digital engagement has benefited students, increasing their employability and adaptability for the future.

Global disruption of education by COVID-19

The last 12 months have been a year like no other.

With the sudden onslaught of one of the largest global medical emergencies the world has seen, there has been major disruption to all parts of society and Education has been one of the most severely impacted.

All Education sectors worldwide were disrupted overnight. Schools, universities, higher education institutes and colleges including polytechnics, community colleges and Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes had to suddenly rely on remote and online delivery.

COVID-19 became a catalyst for educational institutes the world over to find innovative ways of learning remotely in a relatively short space of time. Courses at all levels in all  education sectors  had to be changed to remote learning and this proved easier for some courses than others.

The concept of digital learning of learning ‘anywhere, anytime’ which has been making progress  albeit slowly, became of utmost importance given so many  campuses were closed across all  education sectors.

According to the World Economic Forum article, The rise of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • The COVID-19 has resulted in schools shut all across the world. Globally, over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom
  • As a result, education has changed dramatically, with the distinctive rise of e-learning, whereby teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms.

Acceleration of online learning

The Education sector’s long-held aspirations for digital education accelerated virtually overnight.

This article discusses the impact COVID-19 has had on education globally, mostly focusing on higher education and vocational colleges and institutes, including:

  • How colleges, institutes and teachers in particular, adjusted successfully to delivering remotely and online
  • How students have coped with a new form of engagement in digital learning during this time of unprecedented change and disruption.

In particular, this article also gives specific data on Higher Education and TAFE/Polytechnic Institutes in Australia.

With the rapid change to remote delivery, the majority of  students appreciated the new forms of digital engagement in their learning, although there were also many students facing challenges with technology, isolation and anxiety.

In the ANZ Student Survey 2020 (survey findings from more than 1,700 students across Australia and New Zealand) the findings to the question on students’ preferred way of attending an Institute are below.

Although digital learning has been expanding globally over the years, COVID-19 has definitely accelerated this mode and the numbers of students in all education sectors wanting a digital experience have increased.

Teaching staff with varying levels of expertise in online learning and the use of digital platforms had to not only gain these skills very quickly but be creative in the way they delivered their courses.

Colleges and institutes had to have the necessary technology, systems and digital platforms to accommodate the sudden change in mode of delivery to digital learning.

Types of digital learning

Certainly, courses differ in how much of their learning is delivered online and the degree of online learning varies enormously across schools, universities and colleges.  In particular, universities and colleges deliver  a range of courses  at all levels from basic  Certificate 1 courses to higher education degrees and post-graduate programs covering many different occupations and professions.

In particular, in Colleges and  TAFE/Polytechnic Institutes, many courses have practical components and assessment and have to be delivered face to face. However, there are also a large number of courses with theoretical aspects which could be converted well to online delivery.

According to the report, The Power of TAFE: The COVID Story, ‘digital delivery’ is used to describe the courses that moved from campus to online delivery where students are in their home or workplace. Digital delivery includes a range of strategies such as existing classes changed to delivery via video link, emailing course content to students, having assessments online as well as fully integrated online learning.

In this report, courses were divided into the following four categories:

  • Type 1 – Digital already: these courses were largely already online and teachers were able to switch campus students to digital delivery.
  • Type 2 – Digital suited: these courses, when amended, were able to be moved to digital delivery, with some additional resources for students and support for teachers.
  • Type 3 – Digital challenging: these courses had skill acquisition elements that needed equipment and close oversight from teachers, or it was felt the teachers were insufficiently prepared for delivery in this form.
  • Type 4 – Digital limited: these courses were thought to be too difficult for even some element to be delivered in a digital context, typically traditional trades training.”

The first three types were able to be shifted to digital delivery quite quickly. Most courses in type four were generally not able to be adapted.

Prompt response by Education Institutes

The closure of  colleges and institutes and the move to remote delivery occurred over a matter of weeks.  Colleges and institutes had to respond quickly, providing professional development remotely via webinars and workshops, ensuring teachers had access to different technology platforms and support in changing lesson plans to suit the digital environment.

A key element was the management of virtual classrooms and protocols for students and teachers. Policies and procedures for staff and students had to change quickly to respond to this major disruption.

Another key factor was access by teachers to technical support staff. IT departments in Institutes had to adapt quickly to accommodate all the additional support to help teachers set themselves for delivery from home and also to ensure they had access to Institute systems and platforms.

Need for collaboration

Collaboration and outstanding teamwork to revise learning programs and help everyone transition to a new way of teaching became the norm both within Institutes and across the sector.  As a result of the excellent work done by the teaching and learning support teams in building educator capability and e-learning design teams, Institutes were able to respond quickly.

Communities of practice were formed across the  education sector  and these were very beneficial to staff working remotely, being able to share best practice and also just to be able to debrief on their experiences.

Building capability of teachers in digital learning

Each Institute has their own story and challenges to overcome, relating to their transition of face-to-face classroom delivery to remote and online platforms. However, all institutes have characteristics in common.

Two integral factors were:

  • Ensuring the right IT platforms and resources were in place and were accessible
  • Providing timely professional development to teachers with differing levels of digital literacy and confidence.

Support for changing teaching and assessment strategies particularly in ensuring there was evidence of assessment whether in a digital or COVID safe environment in the workplace was another key factor. Lesson plans had to be quickly changed to accommodate synchronous and asynchronous learning and new student engagement strategies developed for learning in a digital context and, in particular, engaging disadvantaged learners in digital learning.

First and foremost are the skills of the teacher. There has been a push in all sectors over a number of years to move to online delivery and there are certainly champions and major proponents for this amongst teachers in all sectors.

However, some teachers are not as willing to embrace new technologies and tend to stick to the trusted methods they have used over many years rather than change their pedagogy to support digital delivery.

Interestingly, the urgency and rapid disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic incentivised many teachers to transform their delivery and embrace the professional development offered to them to build their capability in digital learning.

A vital component is accessible and relevant professional development for teachers and the opportunity to continue updating their capabilities as technology changes and new tools and techniques are available. Both student and teacher capabilities in utilising and accessing appropriate technology are essential elements in online learning.

Readiness of students to learn online

Another important factor was the readiness of the student cohort to move to digital learning.

Certainly, many students had the technology skills to be able to do so but many of the disadvantaged learners’ cohort did not have the necessary digital literacy  skills and access to the internet.

Students in higher education were more able to transition fully to remote as there would be very few courses, if any, not having a component of their course delivered online.

(graph- Factors impacting the move to digital delivery p9 #The Power of TAFE: The COVID Story – TAFE Directors Australia

The accessibility to online learning students experienced when all learning was remote and much of the population was in lockdown meant that circumstances such as cost, time or geography were no longer factors.

Engaging students in digital learning

There are many excellent examples of how teachers increased their digital capabilities and not only gained confidence in digital learning but also embraced this alternative mode of delivery. Teachers are expert at engaging their students and most were successful in shifting to engaging strategies online.

Examples of innovation included delivering classes on Zoom, Virtual Reality simulation and gamification. Many students preferred attending via video to attending on campus and so participated more in their learning. Many students who were hesitant to speak up in class found it easier to ask questions and engage in the online environment.

Students with low levels of digital literacy

Another great example is how the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) cohort with low levels of digital literacy quickly adapted to new delivery practices in learning English. The use of fun and short video clips which cover speaking, pronunciation and listening activities was very popular. For students who were not able to access computers, these videos were also available on their phones.

Digital learning in universities

University courses have always been a step ahead with online delivery and were able to shift more easily to remote delivery. Lectures were pre-recorded if they had not been before and students could access the recordings as much as they wanted to. Of course, this is great for reinforcing learning. With regard to collaboration, the different learning management platforms utilised by Institutes have great tools and Echo 360 was also popular.

Of course, universities were impacted heavily by international students who were ready to commence their courses but were not able to come to Australia. Many courses were shifted to fully online, enabling international students to commence the course in their home country.

A range of online and interactive teaching and learning resources needed to be developed very quickly to support international students. Many courses used Zoom and its other functions such as break-out rooms and surveys, and podcasts were developed which proved popular.

Support for students

Student access to technology and the internet was also vitally important. For example, many Institutes changed their policies and lent laptops and dongles to students so they could continue their studies at home. Individual student circumstances had to be considered. Many students who were working from home had other commitments such as children with homeschooling.

Additional student support which traditionally could be accessed through libraries and independent learning centres had to be transformed so students could access this support remotely. Access to the right technology was key for this. Student-access hubs where students could access computers and the internet were also established in many Institutes.

Pastoral support, an important service in all Institutes, had to be accessible through technology and many Institutes implemented online wellbeing workshops and counselling services via phone. Many students found themselves in situations where continuing to learn remotely was making completion of their studies more of a challenge. It was important they had access to support services offered by the Institute even if they could not go to the Institute in person.

Expansion of micro-credentials

Micro-credentials that recognise smaller sets of skills and knowledge that are mostly delivered online have been gaining popularity worldwide for a number of years now. This is a response to the rapid changes we are facing in technology and society and the need for industry to have employees with appropriate skill sets and the ability to access up-to-date and accessible training.

Micro-credentials enable people to show their skills and knowledge through digital badges that are gained through learning or the validation of skills and knowledge already developed.

Through micro-credentials, employees are able to confirm that existing and future employees have the skills that are needed in their workplace and importantly can also address emerging skills needs as changes occur.

Importance of micro-credentials in post-COVID recovery

As a result of COVID-19, almost overnight workers were displaced across the country and Institutes were called upon to deliver targeted skills development training that was in high demand, enabling workers that were stood down during the pandemic to gain new skills as well as upskill existing workers.

Most of these courses that were free were delivered as short, sharp training or online micro-credentials and have played a significant part in skill development, underpinning future economic recovery.

Former Australian Education Minister, Dan Tehan, told the Australian Financial Review in August: “We want micro-credentials to be a permanent fixture of the Australian higher education system, giving universities the opportunity to become global leaders in the development and delivery of a new mode of education that will open new markets and revenue streams.”

“The rapid development of micro-credentials has demonstrated that universities are innovative, entrepreneurial and responsive to the needs of students and industry. We need to harness those qualities to drive our post-COVID recovery.”

Short courses and online micro-credentials that were offered in Australian TAFEs and Polytechnics included:

  • Up-to-date infection control training for health and food handling settings
  • Telehealth and medical administration to support the rollout of remote health servicing and
  • Introductory digital communication and technology to assist businesses to adapt their operating models.

The benefits of these online micro-credentials have been enormous. Being able to access short, sharp training through online delivery has given the power back to the student and given them an opportunity to give courses that match their aspirations and interests a try.

Some students have used these courses as stepping stones to higher education. Collaboration with industry also expanded, giving industry the opportunity to have contextualised training to meet workplace needs during and through COVID-19.

User friendly  technology and digital learning platforms

A lesson that has been learnt over many years is that technology cannot replace teachers and trainers. No machines can replace humans. Seamless and user friendly technology is essential in all learning but it is a tool and should not be a driver of education. A great deal of research about technology in education does advocate that pedagogy should drive and technology act as an accelerator (Fullan 2013).

What technology can do is add value to training programs.

The learning management systems need to be user-friendly, accessible on a variety of devices and have the ability for interactivity between teacher and students as well as students amongst themselves, just like any real-world classroom. In all courses, whether they are delivered fully online or face to face, the teacher is integral in facilitating learning.

Growing demand for digital experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled the acceleration of online learning worldwide and will give rise to new ways of learning and engagement with students and business. Online courses have made learning more accessible and this will need to continue as we go down the path of economic recovery.

The USA Online Learning Consortium states, “Online learning has ample room for growth, even beyond the pandemic. When asked about their preferred mode of learning in the next six months and if COVID-19 were not a factor, most Americans prefer online-only or hybrid modes of learning over exclusively face-to-face experiences. These consumers include an incredibly diverse mix of workers and learners of all ages looking to reskill and upskill.”

In Australia and New Zealand, the Student Survey 2020 states, “There is a growing demand for e-learning, with 31% of university students and 36% of VET students preferring a completely online mode of instruction. Correspondingly, there is an increase of students studying purely online from 15% to 29% in Australia. In New Zealand, a quarter of respondents (25%) are studying purely online.”

Need for education institutes to be more agile and contemporary in the post COVID world

The excellent collaboration and teamwork both within Institutes and across the education sector that occurred during COVID-19 have enhanced course delivery and has made Institutes more contemporary and agile. Digital learning has increased and students have been provided with the opportunity to continue their studies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growing popularity and  acceptance of micro-credentials and badges worldwide, sometimes replacing full qualifications, will continue. It has been shown that access to these courses meets the learning aspirations of students and maximises their career options.

We know that learning fully online may deliver the skills that are required and expected in some professions and occupations, but this does not preclude some digital learning for a substantial part of the program.

Maximising student success for the future

For students to succeed in their learning and career goals, there are three key components.  The student experience from enrolment through to completion of their courses is of vital importance at all touchpoints. How students are taught and how they engage with their learning are also integral to their success in this uncertain and chaotic world.

As time goes on and life gets back to a new normal, students will expect to have a proportion or all of their courses via digital engagement. There have been examples of Zoom fatigue and a number of courses have reverted back to, a combination of face-to-face learning complemented with digital engagement. However, there is no doubt students the world over are wanting a hybrid model of learning which is either fully online or a combination of face-to-face and  digital engagement.

In general, the increase in remote and online learning has benefitted students, increasing their employability and lifelong learning skills.  Access to learning via digital engagement has helped students to be more flexible in their learning and more able to adapt easily, and this will be of great benefit to them now and in the future when the next disruption will inevitably occur.

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